Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

A-Z of Reading by Stuart Hylton

A-Z of Reading 1 The monument to Henry Zinzan in St Michael's Church, Tilehurst. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

When the publishers said to me “how do you fancy doing a book on the A to Z of Reading’s local history” I knew straight away what I did not want the book to be. Reading is fortunate in having the key points of its local history well documented (perhaps I should put the word ‘fortunate’ in inverted commas, since I wrote part of that body of work). But I would not want this book to be simply those same key points in alphabetical order. I set out instead to find some sidelights into our town’s history that might be of interest, and at least some of which might be new to the reader.

I tested my approach on the editor with a story about a local fish sauce manufacturer whose product was, in its day, as popular as the Worcestershire variety. It even earned a place in literary posterity by being referred to in Jules Verne’s Around the world in eighty days. Jules Verne obviously swung it with the editor and I was unleashed on the other twenty-five letters of the alphabet.

It was then that I started to realise what I had taken on. ABC may be all very easy but my deliberations had not taken me as far as XYZ. How much history was associated with them? Z proved to be unexpectedly straightforward. Reading had a noble family of Italian extraction called Zinzani, whose association with royalty went back to the days of Henry VIII. There was even a street named after them and a monument to them in a local church, which solved the problem of illustrating the letter Z, for the publisher wanted copious illustrations.

 

A-Z of Reading 2 Greyfriars Church, seen here in its derelict pre-Victorian restoration state. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

Y led me to think of the mediaeval Yield Hall (or Guildhall) and the lane which bears its name. The trouble was the original yield hall vanished centuries ago and no image of it appears to exist. The current yield hall lane is by no stretch of the imagination picturesque. This led me to broaden the search to Reading’s peripatetic seats of local government, which over the years have included a derelict church, the remains of a mediaeval abbey, a Victorian complex designed by four different architects over more than a hundred years and a recently-demolished post-war office block. The link with the original Yield Hall was maintained via an early twentieth century photograph of the lane, by then occupied by an iron founder and pioneer motor mechanic.

A-Z of Reading 3 The Beauclerc Cross, erected in the Forbury Gardens in 1909, 'somewhere near' where Henry I was thought to have been buried. (A-Z of Reading, Amberley Publishing)

But X had me stumped, and the publisher’s stern instruction was that no letter was to be missed. I had to resort to a cheap trick. One of the Kings of England – Henry I – is buried somewhere amid the ruins of Reading Abbey. The trouble is no one knows exactly where. So this conundrum is discussed beneath the caption ‘X marks the spot – but Where’s King Henry?’

Another constraint was the publisher’s requirement to keep to about 500 words per entry. Some topics were easily contained, like Reading’s Civil War army commander who was so unpopular that his own troops took advantage of a dark night and a dark alley to assault him. He was eventually beaten to death with his own wooden leg by the opposition. But others were much wider in their scope – such as elections. There space did not permit me more than a brief exploration of the elections of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – what I characterised as ‘Reading’s golden age of electoral corruption’.

Even where the words come together readily, illustrations may be more elusive. Where do you find images to represent Reading at the time of the Domesday Book, for example? But while the format may have been more challenging than it first appeared, I hope the outcome has proved diverting, and will cast a little light on some neglected corners of Reading’s history.

9781445670362

Stuart Hylton's new book A - Z of Reading: Places - People - History is available for purchase now.